Practical Guide to Organizing a Hackathon

7 min read /

There are lots of blog posts that talk about why companies should host hackathons, how to make hackathon projects profitable, and which departments should participate. This is not one of those posts.

Instead, this post provides a practical guide that helped me – self-appointed Bürgermeister (German for mayor) – organize our upcoming Häcketse (local dialect for hackathon). To help out all those other hackathon-organizers out there, I thought I'd share my experience and checklist. (Please keep in mind that this guide is just the way we at K15t Software run hackathons, there are plenty of other ways of doing this.) So without further ado, I present the ultimate, Confluence-supported, practical Bürgermeister-Bier-guide to organizing a hackathon:

Stage 1: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Schedule hackathon date:

To give as many people as possible the chance to participate, try to schedule the hackathon at a time that doesn't conflict with e.g. big conferences, public holidays, peak vacation season. The K15t Software hackathon is normally scheduled on a Thursday (4 pm) and lasts until Friday (4 pm).

Schedule brown bag meetings:

Brown bag meetings help people talk about their ideas, form teams and brainstorm. The 1st brown bag meeting should be scheduled two weeks before the hackathon. The 2nd should take place one week before the hackathon. They should both last about an hour.

Define rules:

This isn't necessarily the Bürgermeister's responsibility but he/she certainly needs to know the rules. (Rules define how large teams are allowed to be, how winners are determined, etc. Here are some of our rules: max team size is 4 people, everyone has two votes to choose the winner but can't use them both on one project, and voting for yourself is tolerated but lame :)

Define, purchase or organize reward:

Good rewards can be major motivators. As this isn't our first hackathon, we already have an established reward system for our hackathon winners.

Our winning teams are presented with the K15t Software trophy, on which their names are engraved to ensure everlasting fame. They also get to choose an event for the whole company to be held some time after the hackathon (e.g. we have played laser tag, gone climbing, and solved Exit Games riddles)

Stage 2: Invite and Inform

Gather information and make it available

K15t Software uses Atlassian Confluence to collaborate on almost everything, so in our case, the previous hackathon organizer Roman created a Confluence page to 

Managing hackathon ideas on a Confluence page

If you also want to manage your ideas in Confluence: create a hackathon idea template (with label hackathon-ideas for example), add the 'create from template' macro to a Confluence page, also add the page properties macro (using the label of your template). Now people can easily submit ideas and you have an idea overview page ready to go.

Invite and inform

We use Google Calendar but you can also manage this via Apple's Calendar or Microsoft's calendar. Invite people to the hackathon event as well as the two brown bag meetings. I also sent out an email which contained 

  • calendar invites for the hackathon date as well as both brown bag meetings
  • links to our hackathon information page (refer to information hub, in our case Confluence) 
  • a short how-to on submitting project ideas

Stage 3: Bring Brown Bags

Prepare 1st brown bag meeting

The first brown bag meeting lasts about an hour and gives people a chance to present their project ideas, brainstorm new ideas, and start forming teams. Before the meeting starts, I make sure to

  • create a google hangout, so people who work remotely can also participate
  • setup a projector to display the idea page
  • order pizza and drinks to keep people happy

Send out a reminder

2 or 3 days after the first brown bag meeting, I send an email reminding everyone to submit their project ideas (+ link to idea submission page), especially if they couldn't attend the 1st meeting or couldn't decide on a project yet. This helps to have a more final project overview at the second brown bag meeting.

Prepare 2nd brown bag meeting

The second brown bag meeting also lasts about an hour. By the end, people should know which project they will be working on and with whom. Any outstanding questions should also be answered. Preparing the 2nd brown bag meeting is the same as the 1st.

Stage 4: Getting It Done

Prepare the hackathon itself

Our hackathons typically last 24 hours and it tends to get really busy. So all prep should be complete the day before your hackathon starts. I make sure to

  • print out our voting cards (everyone gets 2)
  • purchase confetti that will be thrown on the winning team (feel free to go crazy: party hats are always a nice touch)
  • collect lots of pens (for the voting cards)
  • order pizza and drinks for the following day
  • set up a projector to display the idea and team overview page

Kick off the event

As the Bürgermeister, I am responsible for kicking off the hackathon. On start day, I juggle the following tasks:

  • Gather people for kick-off meeting
  • Prompt teams to shortly introduce their project
  • Remind people that they will have 5 minutes to present their results at the end

After everyone heads off to work on their projects, you get to relax (in the rare case you aren't also working on a project).

Wrapping up

In the last hour of the hackathon, you will need to get busy again. I do at least. 

  • Remind everyone that they have an hour left
  • Stop people from working after the deadline
  • Gather everyone for final presentations
  • Draw the order in which the teams will do their 5 min presentations
  • Hand out and collect voting cards
  • Count votes
  • Announce winners (with lots of pomp and circumstance)
  • Possibly celebrate (wink) 

Stage 5: Not Done Yet?

Almost. Basically, I –

  • archive any ideas that weren't chosen to possibly be reanimated at the next hackathon (remember that Confluence page?)
  • collect photos (hopefully you didn't forget to take them)

That's All, Folks!

More About The Hacketse

If you would also like to check out some of the projects which are a direct result of our hackathons, have a look at the following:

Hacketse VIII: The Hacketse Strikes Back

Delivering design specifications to developers with Sketch & JIRA

Recap of Our Seventh Hacketse